So Much is out of our Control

At the confirmation retreat last weekend, Shannon Conley-Kurjian told me of a book she’s reading about generational trauma.

The book told of an Emory University School of Medicine study. The researchers took mice and sprayed the scent of cherry blossoms as they gave a little electric shock. As the generations went along, the mice whose parents or grandparents had learned to associate the smell of cherry blossom with an electric shock became jumpy in the presence of the cherry blossom smell. Even though they had never been shocked. There was a higher stress hormone and hard-wired responses in the brain.[1]

This biological mechanism is known as epigenetic inheritance. We’re just getting started in this research field, and there is so much scientists don’t understand. So far, the discoveries have been that not just one gene but many genes control behaviors or metabolic diseases like obesity, allergies, addictions, mental health, and so on. Plus context and environment play a role. We’re just scratching the surface.

It’s a very new and technical field, but I think we intuitively get this truth. There are things that happen to us that stay with us. So much of life is out of our control. We don’t know why we hate snakes or spiders so much. Or we recoil at the word moist. Or we have strong opinions about the order of a well-organized silverware drawer. Or why we have to sit with our back to a wall facing the door. Most things in life aren’t taught, they’re caught. And some things we’re given through epigenetic inheritance. We get no choice over our eye color, hair color, or how long we’ll keep it.

No amount of prayer or positive thinking can change certain things we’ve been given. Despite all my praying, I’ll never have grown up in Seattle in the early 1990s with the alt. rock genre of music emerging that I love so much. There is so much out of our control, just from the start. Prayer is always a great way to explore things. Theologian and author Rob Bell keeps a prayer journal. It serves as an anchor to explore things out of his control.

One day Rob went surfing with a friend who is more skilled than he. Rob likes to surf five-to-six-foot waves. As he’s paddling out with his friend he asks, “How big are we surfing today?” “Nothing too big,” his friend replies. “Just 10 footers.”

This is double than what Rob is used to. A day or so after this, Rob starts waking up at 4 in the morning with a start. This continues for the next few days. As Rob prays and journals about this, he starts to connect the 10-foot waves to his body’s response. Rob thinks that the terror of the 10-foot waves was still in his body and his body is saying, “Look man, we need to talk about this.”

Maybe there’s something going on in your life where your body is saying, “Hey, we need to talk about this.” Prayer and reflection might be the only way to find out what these things are.

Since September, my back has been going out. By the end of the day, I would have shooting pain through my mid and lower back. Like an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale. I thought it was from too much running. But I’ve run longer, this was a low year. I couldn’t figure it out.

I went to physical therapy. My hips were all out of whack. After brief reflection, I realized that I’ve been preaching for 5 years at The Gathering with one foot up. That’s affected my hips and caused unbelievable back pain. Without someone helping me reflect and figure out what’s going on, I would never have had this conversation with my body.

Maybe you have had a similar experience. If you have pain, please find someone you can trust to talk it out with. There is so much out of our control, it’s good to find folks to help. If you’re in physical pain, head to your doctor. Emotional or mental pain, there are so many wonderful therapists willing to help. Spiritual pain, that’s my job. Please give me a call. I’d love to listen and sit with you.

There is so much out of our control. Sometimes we wake up at 4 a.m. Sometimes there’s a nagging sense like we’re forgetting something. Sometimes we’re just overwhelmed, and we’re triggered by cherry blossoms, but we don’t know why but it’s a gift of our epigenetic heritage. Sometimes, people are talking about us. We can’t control how people respond to us. Nor could Jesus.

Jesus is casting out demons. He’s curing people. He’s preaching about the inclusive love of God. And the response from the religious? The response from his own people? Death threats.

Jesus names the generational cycle that Jerusalem is trapped in. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing”

The radical good news that Jesus lived, taught, and was killed for: God’s beloved community is near. Think differently and believe this good news! Jesus prayed, “May they be one, oh God, as you and I are one.” Jesus longed to unite us but was met with death threats.

We can’t control other people. Sometimes, we can’t even control how we react to them. Maybe our genetic heritage has been triggered by something we don’t even know about. Maybe that’s the source of our anxiety, depression, or response to any given situation.

No matter how much we plan, whatever processes we create, what idea we might have… No matter what the data says, no matter how nice we are;[2] things are out of our control. There are so many headlines we would erase if we could. News of wars, plagues, school shootings, and more. These would never happen if we could control it all. We try to put systems in place to give us the illusion of control. But we’ve never had control in the first place, all we have had is anxiety.

It is good to go to God in prayer. It is good to journal and reflect. It’s good to talk about it, whether at bible study or with a trusted friend. It is good to rest and do nothing in the face of a triggered response. When someone might say something in response to what you have said, written, or done, you can even just say, “Ouch. Well, that feels hurtful.” We tend to kill the prophets sent to us. Like Martin Luther King, Jr who said, “You know, we don’t have the best track record on race in this coutnry.” He wanted to bring people together, and he was killed for it. Died the most hated man in America.

We stone the prophets who are sent to us. The prophets tell us that we aren’t in control. And maybe the things we are in control of, aren’t serving us.

Jesus’ response to Herod’s death threat is stone cold. Jesus says, “You tell that fox that if he wants to talk, he knows where to find me. I’ll be out there curing people and preaching God’s love.”

We can’t control events. We can’t control how people respond. We can’t even control how we respond sometimes. Maybe, through prayer, journaling, and rest… and time… we can think about what we’re about. We’ll have words for it in the face of the detractors. And look, most of the detractors are going to try to be anonymous anyway.

“Well, that’s not how I would do it.” Okay, go start your own thing. “Nah, I don’t have the time.” Wait… what? How can anything change if that’s our attitude?

Or “I can worship God anywhere, in a forest on a hike. I can pray anytime.” Yeah, okay… are you, though?

The church is one of the only institutions founded on human thriving. We do it imperfectly. Yet we’re doing something. We’re doing like Jesus did. Trying to heal others and support them. To restore sight… maybe not physically. We haven’t figured that out. But how to perceive your life of faith? How to see God in aspects of your life you wouldn’t think to look? That’s what we’re trying to do. Maybe there is more to learn about this surprising God of ours.

I love this parable that Scott Erickson gives in his book, Say Yes: Discover the surprising life beyond the death of a dream. I think it speaks to being okay and living in faith that anything you try to do will be good enough. Scott writes, “Once upon a time a great ship was built. It was strong, mighty, and something to behold.

It was given a great purpose: to deliver important seeds to the far side of the ocean. The ship celebrated its great purpose. It thought, How great a Task I have! I must be valuable. This is what I was meant to do.

So it set sail on the great sea.

On its journey an unforeseen storm came upon it. It thought it could handle it. It was sure it could handle it. But the storm was much bigger than it had anticipated or planned for. It couldn’t control the situation. The ship was wiped out by the storm.

It found itself wrecked on some rocks. It couldn’t move. The great ship was lost in the ocean, and it sat there for a long time with its failure—its failure to fulfill its purpose.

But something unexpected happened. Slowly, the water seeped into the seeds, and they began to germinate and grow. They grew and grew and overtime a large forest emerged.

One day, another ship came by, also broken and floundering because of the storm. It came to the island and asked, “May I rest here awhile? I’m so tired from my journey.” The great ship replied, “Sure. By all means.”

As the newly arrived ship rested, the great ship gave some of its wood to build a shelter for its crew. They stayed awhile and after they had rested up the ship was restored, the visiting ship left, renewed for its journey.

“Thank you for your hospitality! You really helped me,” said the restored ship to the great ship.

After a while another ship passed by. A similar thing happened. The ship and crew were healed, and they went on their journey. This cycle kept happening. New ship after new ship came, all of them injured because of an unexpected storm and needing a place to recover. The great ship realized it had something to give—a place of rest and a sense of solidarity with ships that had been wrecked because of unforeseen storms on the great sea.

Eventually, the great ship decided to build a lighthouse so that all ships passing by could be cared for, find rest, and then continue on their journey.

Throughout the years, the great ship cared for many, many bruised and broken ships. Over time, the ship came to recognize a puzzling mystery: out of its own wreckage and failure, it became a gift to others.

It always wondered if this was its purpose all along.[3]

We are embarked on life. We are out on the sea and so much is out of control. We might seek harbors and wish to stay there. It is as John Shedd once said, “Ships are safest in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for.” Yet this shall be forever true in our life of faith: ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24677-fear-of-a-smell-can-be-passed-down-several-generations/

[2] See the Colors of Communication, remember those? No matter what color you are, there are things out of your control

[3][3] Pages 67-69.

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